Behind the scenes of the world's richest fishing tournament
In 1981, Bob Bisbee, who owned Balboa Island’s Marine Fuels & Sportfishing Headquarters, more commonly known as the island gas dock, was sitting around with some buddies talking fishing. They fell onto the subject of tournaments, ones in which captains would bet on whose boat would land the biggest fish. Bisbee thought that sounded “kind of fun,” so that year, he put up $10,000 to entice five of his friends to venture down to Cabo San Lucas in their boats for the first Bisbee fishing tournament.
Which Bisbee promptly won himself.
But he had done more than just win his money back. He had started what would become the richest big-game fishing tournament on the planet: Bisbee’s Black & Blue Tournament, named after the target fish, black and blue marlin. Now in its 36th year, each October, the tournament sees more than 150 boats enter and has cash payouts in the millions. In 2006, a team swept every tournament category with one fish and took home nearly $4 million. This year, 2016, the haul was more than $2 million.
Back in the day
But back in 1981, Bisbee never dreamed his friendly tournament would grow to the giant it is today. He had been going to Cabo to fish since the early sixties and knew it was one of the premier fishing areas of the world. He wanted to turn more people onto it – besides, it was good for business.
“I wanted people to go down,” says Bisbee in the slow patient drawl of a man who’s spent a lot of time waiting for fish to bite under a hot Mexican sun. “They’d run a thousand gallons of fuel goin’ down, which I would sell ‘em, and another thousand when they got back, so I promoted it pretty heavily.”
He knew that any fisherman who cast his or her line in the cobalt blue ocean off Cabo would fall in love with the place. The waters were teeming with tuna, wahoo, mahi, and the biggest prize of all, marlin.
“There was just fish everywhere you looked. Drop a line in and it didn’t matter what was on it, you’d catch a fish,” says Bisbee.
Today, after years of longliners and commercial fishing depleting fish populations, it’s more challenging, but each year during the Bisbee, marlin in the 400-plus pound range are still caught daily. In fact, anglers aren’t allowed to bring anything smaller than 400 pounds to the dock.
“We don’t want them out there killing a whole bunch of little fish. Besides, it’s gonna take a big fish to win it anyway, so we set a limit,” Bisbee explains. When they do bring the big fish in, it does more than just vie for cash. Each year, the fishermen donate thousands of pounds of fish to the locals, a tradition that dates back to when Bisbee himself began fishing there in the ’60s.
Back then, all that existed in Cabo was a cannery, a few hotels and some shacks. Ice was hard to come by, let alone refrigeration. And with the fishing so good, it meant a lot of fish Bisbee and his fellow anglers couldn’t eat.
“We’d bring a fish into the outer harbor and there’d be families waiting there, so we’d just steak it out into foot long chunks and pass it out. We gave it all away. Still do that today,” says Bisbee, who has always tried to give back to the town, like when he bought it its first ambulance.
The tournament grew steadily over the years, until in 1995 it was too big for Bisbee himself. It was more working than fishing and he decided to step away and let his son Wayne and his daughter Patricia, or Tricia, take over. They had been helping all along and were up for the challenge.
Angling for a bigger catch
It was too big for Bob, but it wasn’t big enough for Wayne and Tricia. They took it to a whole other level, says Bob, by bringing in major sponsors (“I didn’t want to be bothered with that.”) and increasing the jackpots (the year Wayne took over was the first year the pot grew to over $100,000). Meanwhile they also started promoting two other Bisbee gamefishing tournaments in the preceding months of the Black & Blue, the East Cape Offshore Tournament and the Los Cabos Offshore Tournament, themselves offering up hundreds of thousands in prize money.
Of course, to win the big bucks, it takes big bucks. Just to enter the Black & Blue is $5,000, but almost no teams leave it to that. Because of a complicated, poker-like structure, there are daily jackpots, each of which you can enter at various levels. Cutting to the chase, most of the big boats enter all categories, or Across the Board, which is $71,500, including the entry fee.
Here’s the thing: that’s the cheap part, says Captain Jimmy Decker, a fishing guide in Newport Beach who won the Los Cabos Offshore Tournament in 2015. He says that many boats are multimillion-dollar vessels with pro crews and the best equipment. Deckhands might get $250 a day and 2% of any winnings; the captain gets $800 a day and 10%. Then there’s the fuel, food, and fishing tackle, with lures going for $150-$250 a pop, rods and reels another $1,600 each. The big boats will carry a dozen or more.
“But when you have a $2 million boat, you’re not worried about $20,000 in gear,” says Decker. Besides, he adds, if you hook an 800-pound marlin that could win you millions, the last thing you want to worry about is gear failure. Win the Black & Blue and you’ve got bragging rights for life.
Wayne and Tricia have built the tournament into such a coveted win, in fact, that they have a biologist on staff to make sure the fish were indeed caught that day and no fiddling has taken place – in other tournaments, bricks have been found stuffed in fish, fish have been caught days earlier and frozen for the weigh-in, and water has been pumped down fish windpipes. Every competitor also agrees to take a polygraph test if asked.
Sharing the bounty
On the more positive side of success is the help the tournament provides to the people of Baja. In the tradition of their father, tons of tournament fish go to local retirement homes and orphanages each year, and a fund set up by Wayne has sent dozens of Cabo high schoolers to college, all expenses and tuition paid, to study marine biology.
Study and preparation is the name of the game for competitors, too. The Black & Blue is not just drinking beers and telling fish stories. Most boats roll into Cabo at least a week ahead of the tournament, sometimes two, to scout out fishing grounds, which extend in a 40-mile radius out from the tip of Cabo.
“That’s a lot of water. So you want as much time as you can to pre-fish and try to find where the schools of bait and small tuna are, because that’s what the big marlin are feeding on,” says Decker. He says he would troll for days with hookless lures. When a fish hit it, he’d mark down the location, time of day, water temp, and tide. Then they’d scout somewhere else. Finally, two days before the tournament, they’d hit their two best spots and make a plan for tournament day.
Then, sometimes, the morning of the start, everything comes crashing down. The worst problem a team can have is a great captain and a stubborn owner, says Decker.
“The owner is paying the captain to operate the boat and get great information. It might be from a local panga guy he’s known for 30 years,” says Decker. The captain is watching the water, studying water temp charts, and going out and finding good areas. “And then tournament day comes and the boss will say, ‘Joe at the bar told me that the bite is at the so-and-so bank. I want to start there.’ What do you do? This guy’s paying your salary, he owns the boat, paying for the fuel, the crew, and paying the entry. I’ve seen that happen.”
Of course, there are great, knowledgeable boat owners, too, who respect the captain and crew as much as they are skilled.
But this is fishing, which means luck factors in. A lot. And sometimes, a great owner and crew combined with a $4 million boat and all the preparation in the fishing world can’t beat a healthy dose of beginner’s luck. Exhibit A: 2015’s big winners: Jason Langen, a sheet metal worker from Canada, and his four blue-collar tradesmen friends. Langen had gone to Cabo on vacation a few years before and caught a striped marlin. He was hooked. He went back to Canada and watched every YouTube video on the Bisbee available, infected his friends with the fishing tournament bug and anteed up the $5,000 entry fee. He and his friends scraped $20,000 together to fly down and charter a boat and captain for the tournament. They had almost no experience and less money.
They caught a 500-pound marlin and won $365,000 – it would have been much more but they couldn’t afford to enter any of the daily jackpots.
And perhaps Langen is the greatest testament to the prestige of the Bisbee and what the Bisbee family has pulled off. Bob Bisbee just wanted to make fishing with friends more interesting. And he did. Wayne and Tricia wanted to create a world-class professional tournament. And they did.
So where does it go from here? Who knows? After all, Wayne has a son. So, there might just be a $10 million fish swimming off Cabo right now…